ACLU Calls Colorado Policy of Jailing the Poor for Failure to Pay Fines "Debtors' Prison"

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Since the 1800’s the concept of debtors’ prison has been anathema to Americans, but a the American Civil Liberties Union says in a new report  that Colorado has essentially reinstituted the practice because of routine incarcerations of people who cannot afford to pay court-related fines.

In a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the court ruled that indigent persons cannot be jailed for failure to pay fines as it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Colorado Supreme Court essentially doubled-down on that ruling in a 1987 case that ruled incarceration because of a failure to pay fines was unconstitutional, citing the Colorado State Constitution which says no one “shall be imprisoned for debt” unless it’s a matter of refusal to pay as prescribed by law or where “there is a strong presumption of fraud.”

In a lengthy report from The Denver Post, a number of anecdotal cases are recounted where citizens were jailed for such minor offenses as traffic violations and possession of alcohol. While, on the surface, these individuals were sentenced to pay fines and failed to do so, they all made gestures of good faith that showed an intention to pay down their fines. In one case, the court returned checks sent on behalf of the offender because “partial payments” were not accepted.

Beyond the question of whether this is an unfair impingement on an individual’s liberty, there is a cost issue. According to a KCCO report from 2010, the daily cost of keeping an inmate in county jail is around $50/per day. 19 year-old Kim Santistevan was arrested for possessing alcohol and ultimately ended up serving 16 days in jail over what was originally a $250 court fine. Forgive the cliché, but the punishment certainly does not seem to fit the crime. At a time when With some states paying more money for prisons than college, it would seem that the preferred goal would be to keep people out of prison who might benefit from some other kind of consequences.